The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
It took me a long while before I actually plucked up the courage to read the book. There’s something about watching the movie first that tells me, ‘I already know everything I need to know’, and then I struggle to pluck up the enthusiasm to read.
There were also a few criticisms of Katniss’ character that I felt were a little off-putting. This is one of those occasions where I wish I hadn’t listened to the critics. All the aspects of her character that they didn’t like, I enjoyed simply because it makes sense.
See, Katniss’ personality is a by-product of living in a totalitarian regime. Every year she has to watch children she knows bludgeon each other, and other children from other places, to death. She knows there’s no chance of survival for them, not with the career tributes that dedicate their pre-pubescent lives to train to kill.
She knows she is on the bottom rung of the ladder, surrounded by peacekeepers (armed guards) to make sure she works herself to death, rather than rebelling. It’s what killed her father, ultimately. With his death comes the responsibility of raising her sister, whom she is terrified will get called to the Reaping. If that happens, she’ll end up watching her sister get brutally murdered knowing the Capitol are just cheering it on. Her mother, on the other hand, became catatonic after her husband’s passing. Katniss had to step up, and that meant growing up very, very quickly.
She’s hardly going to be sassy – though she does have her moments. She’s not going to be optimistic, jovial, huggy or anything we expect of our damsels. Katniss isn’t a damsel, she is an accidental hero. She volunteers in her sister’s place out of sheer desperation to keep her sister safe – not really thinking about what the consequences would mean for her. But no one else was going to save Primrose. Everyone else just watched in muted apathy. It was Katniss who was screaming for her sister, trying to reach her and shield her from what her fate would have been.
Now, I’ve spent quite a while talking about Katniss’ character, but it is important. Sure, readers sometimes want a character that they can relate to, or one they can escape into, but that isn’t the nature of the Hunger Games. Katniss isn’t a puppet protagonist, no matter how stoic she is. Stoicism isn’t a mark of a one dimensional character, and Katniss has plenty of traits that appear not in what she says but what she does, and how she does them. She is a strong character, but she is also a broken one. I feel she was living with PTSD long before she was thrown into the Games, and that is something I have kept in mind when reading her. It fits.
Now, some people I know complained about the book (and the film) that half of it is spent outside the Hunger Games. That the actual event doesn’t fill every damn page. Well, I also like this.
First we have District 12 preparing for the Reaping. We get an idea of what this means for the people, as well at Katniss. There’s a sense that this has been going on so long, but the people are so broken, there’s no fight left. Someone will die soon. Innocent children will be forced to kill one another and there is nothing they can do but watch.
Then Katniss volunteers and we see the juxtaposition of her world, District 12, compared to the Capitol, who live in luxury and bliss. It’s almost like they have no idea the children are actually being killed – or death means so little to them.
Naturally, this horrifies Katniss – especially when she finds Lavinia, an Avox whom she had seen shortly before the Reaping. Lavinia was trying to escape the Capitol’s control but was subsequently caught. Katniss had no idea what happened to her, until she arrived at her penthouse suite to find the poor woman attending to her. Lavinia wasn’t always an Avox, and Lavinia is a constant reminder of what would happen to Katniss if she tried to escape like she had been planning with Gale.
Avoxes are slave-class who are maimed as punishment for being deserters. Their tongues are removed and they serve in the Capitol with no rights to their name.
Lavinia stands as a reminder of Katniss. She cannot escape her fate, and her fate is approaching at an impeccable speed in the form of the Hunger Games. We as the reader know she will enter those games, it’s in the name of the book, but we get to read about all the layers that force her into that predicament to begin with. It shows why she doesn’t try fighting her way out of it all – one small mess up could kill her sister, still.
The Capitol, President Snow, Panem, it’s a totalitarian regime dialled up to 11, and Katniss is a very small pawn in their Hunger Games. She knows it and I could imagine that to be a deafening scream in her head. It is something she thinks about constantly, as well as protecting her sister back home. Sure, she’s volunteered in Primrose’s place, but that doesn’t mean District 12 are safe. Causing too much attention, stepping out of line and so forth could rally up the other disgruntled districts, and that’s something President Snow does not want. Yet, Katniss’ volunteering on its own attracted unwanted attention.
Despite all that is stacked up against Katniss, forcing her to move in one direction, she still fights back in her own way. Minor ways to protect her sister, but done just because she cannot stand the nature of the beast. And I love it.
Not only that, but Katniss isn’t a superhero. She’s human. In the Hunger Games she’s not really alone. All that parading about on Capitol television was to woo the filthy rich in hopes they’d sponsor her – further evidence that they have control even when they’re spectators.
It a slight nuance that proves just how superficial the Capitol has become in its elite isolation. If they don’t like a particular child, they can refuse funding and have them die quicker. Luckily for Katniss, they’re amused by her disdain for kissing arse. It’s new to them and therefore interesting and of value. All the other tributes are bending over, licking boots and desperately clinging to the hope that they’d be funded well enough to survive. Katniss is done with their crap.
In Katniss’ mind, she’s already lost the games, but she’ll be damned if she’s not dying on her terms – hence the berries at the end. While the Capitol saw this as an act of rebellion, particularly President Snow, I believe Katniss had every intention of dying then and there and would happily have let Peeta die too to rid the barbaric regime of their Victor. Now that’s brazen. Unfortunately she didn’t die and then the sequel comes in to explain the consequences.
When we finally get the Hunger Games, we are ‘rewarded’ by seeing that they weren’t just making it up. It is brutal and terrifying and the children really do just kill each other. Katniss is separated from Peeta, and if it isn’t strangers trying to kill her, the Games’ is, with its wild fires and genetically engineered insects – not to mention the genetically engineered monsters later on (now there’s something the films couldn’t quite touch).
Okay, so I’ve gotten pretty lengthy at explaining the world, and why I disagree with criticisms of character and such, but there are some aspects of the book that I found not up to my speed or taste, such as the love triangle. It did feel forced, for me, and I know who she ends up with and I dislike that too – but I know I don’t look for love stories. At the same time I get the feeling that Gale might not have survived if he were the one to be picked at the Reaping.
Peeta survived by trickery, promising to lead the career pack to Katniss to kill her, but I doubt Gale could have brought himself to do that. I doubt he could have imagined lying about it, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a better ‘suitor’. In fact, I read the book with the view that a love story was a backseat affair. When the films came out and there are hordes of fans exclaiming ‘Team Peeta!’ or ‘Team Gale!’ I couldn’t help but feel like I was very much ‘Team Katniss’. I mean, there’s a reason this book is listed as dystopian, and not dystopian romance.
I mean, if I was fighting for my life and stressing about my family, I doubt I’d be thinking much about who I want t spend the rest of my life with. Especially if the rest of my life could be ten minutes away. It could be just me, but I imagine I’d plough through the Hunger Games with blinkers on. I mean it was all for show, but at the same time it wasn’t in terms of writing devices.
Finally, I really enjoyed the characters of this book. They each suited fitted well into the story, even the eccentricity and whimsy that revolves around Effie, a Capitol resident, to the depressive madness that inhabits Haymitch – Katniss’ ‘trainer’ and District 12’s only Victor. It shows Katniss that even if she won the game, she wouldn’t really win anything.
Katniss’ mother plays a vital part in the book, despite being practically missing for most of it. Her depression, which Katniss doesn’t really understand nor appreciate, is one of the many things that drives our protagonist. Meanwhile Primrose is clearly a driving force of the whole book, and Katniss’ reason to live and fight. She’s the one that Katniss wants to go home to and protect, not certain her mother could step up to the plate without her. She’s not desperate to be with Gale. Not Peeta. Her sister, and that’s beautiful.
If you haven’t read this book, I recommend to decide for yourself. If you have, I’d like to know your opinion on it.
© 2016 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.